Drivers who hog the left lane soon could face fines up to $250 in Maryland under a bill designed to ease bottlenecks and reduce road rage by making it easier for motorists to get around slower vehicles.
The bill, which has passed the House and is pending in the Senate, would put Maryland among a growing number of states cracking down on drivers who seem to defy a basic lesson of high school driver's education: Use the left lane to pass, then move back to the right. Virginia lawmakers recently added a new mandatory minimum fine to their long-standing law requiring motorists to move right after passing.
The push comes as many states have increased their highway speed limits and lawmakers say their time-starved constituents are pleading for ways to make traffic move faster.
The bill's sponsor, Del. William Folden, R-Frederick, said he sees the problem routinely on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 270 and other major roads.
"Look at this guy!" Folden exclaimed recently during a phone call from Route 100 in Howard County, as he drove home from the Annapolis statehouse during the evening rush.
"There are nine cars behind this one pickup truck in the left lane," Folden reported, sounding exasperated. "The speed limit is 55, and he's probably going 52 or 53 - in the left lane!"
Folden, a police officer who has specialized in traffic enforcement, said left-lane dawdlers are a hazard because they require others to pass on the right, in a driver's blind spot. They also cause more aggressive driving, he said, as people stuck behind them close in on their bumpers or dart in and out of other lanes to get around them. Leaving the left lane more open also would help police and emergency responders reach crashes, he said.
But some traffic safety advocates say they've seen no evidence showing that such laws help prevent road rage or make roads safer. In fact, they say, they worry such laws could end up encouraging dangerous speeding.
"My concern is this bill says the left lane is the fast lane and, unless you're going fast, don't use it," said John Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Townsend said he knows many motorists will object, but he doesn't think the left lane needs a new law. Slower drivers should move to the right as a courtesy, he said. But he said people driving the speed limit in the left lane shouldn't get a ticket simply because they didn't make way for others who want to drive above the limit. He noted that about one-third of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States involve speeding, about the same number as drunken driving.
"The person behind [the slower driver] is being unsafe and boorish" if they're trying to get them out of the way, Townsend said. "We want to ticket the person who's being aggressive. That's the person inciting road rage . . . I just think we'd be ticketing the wrong people."
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said he hasn't seen any data showing that left-lane laws make roads safer. He said he's concerned that laws protecting the fast lane are becoming more common as many states also have increased their highway speed limits, including some to as high as 85 mph.
With the additional 5 mph to 10 mph for the "speed cushion" that motorists know police typically allow before they issue a ticket, he said, "The speeds are getting really high."
"It's clear that everyone is in a rush, and people want to go faster and faster," Adkins said. "Anything that makes that easier tends to get supported. Speed in general is a neglected highway safety issue."
Folden said most vehicles on highways that aren't choked with traffic travel faster than the posted speed limit and that his bill doesn't protect the left lane for excessive speeders.
"Someone said, 'You're just encouraging very aggressive males to tailgate old ladies,' " he said. "No. I'm just encouraging more courteous driving so people vacate the left lane."
Folden said about 40 states have laws that specify the left lane for passing or faster traffic. Some restrict it only to passing while others require motorists to move to the right if they're blocking traffic. Maryland law prohibits drivers from impeding "the normal and reasonable movement of traffic" by driving too slowly, but it's not specific to the left lane. District of Columbia law requires motorists to pass on the left in most situations but does not limit the left lane to passing, according to D.C. police.
Folden's bill would apply to roads that have three or more lanes in one direction and a posted speed limit of 55 mph or higher. That would cover about 1,051 miles of roads, including the Capital Beltway, Interstate 95, I-270 and numbered state roads such as U.S. Route 50 and U.S. Route 301, according to the Maryland State Highway Administration.
It would not apply to motorists making a left turn or using a left exit or left HOV lane. To keep rush-hour traffic flowing, it also wouldn't apply when traffic bogs down by 10 mph or more below the posted speed limit. The fine would be $75 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense and $250 for the third or more.
Capt. Tom Didone, commander of the Montgomery County police traffic division, testified in favor of the bill, saying it would help traffic flow more efficiently and safely by keeping it at a more consistent speed. Motorists who drive significantly faster or slower than the flow of traffic create more potential for a crash, he said. That includes motorists who think they're helping to keep a highway at a safe speed by driving the speed limit in the left lane.
"People think they're causing people to slow down," Didone said, "but they're going to cause a crash."
In Virginia, lawmakers recently added a mandatory minimum fine of $250 to the state law requiring motorists to stay to the right except when passing. The law now has a maximum fine of $250 but no mandatory minimum.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) reduced that mandatory minimum to $100, and the House approved it. The Senate will vote on the change April 5, when lawmakers reconvene to consider the governor's amendments and vetoes.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the organization is "a little bit concerned" that some motorists could misinterpret the law as permission to speed in the left lane. She noted that it can be difficult for people to move to the right when traffic is heavy.
"It's not meant to give advantage to people who just want to drive excessively faster than you are," Schrad said. "We don't want the wrong message to go out to drivers who routinely break the speed limit, that they can push people out of their way."
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the recent Virginia legislation, said he was inspired by his travels to Germany, Italy and other countries where motorists who linger in the left lane receive loud honks and flashing lights from approaching drivers.
The feedback from motorists, he said, has been "overwhelmingly positive."
"It's an issue anyone who commutes every day experiences," Surovell said. "It's extremely frustrating for anybody to feel bottled up because someone is being selfish and slowing things down for everyone."